He's got bananas! He's got okra!
FEATURED IN IN FILM AND SAMPLED IN MUSIC, A NEW ORLEANS STREET VENDOR TAKES IT ONE DAY AT A TIME
cheryl gerber photographs
Arthur Robinson isn’t a performer, and he’s no one’s politician, but his voice is still well known to thousands of New Orleanians. They know him as Mr. Okra – or sometimes just Okra – his trade name as a roving produce vendor who patrols New Orleans streets in a battered, chugging Ford pickup packed with fruits and vegetables and decked in folk art renderings of his inventory. His voice, a deep, bullfrog baritone, bellows out from a truck-mounted, hiccup-prone P.A. system, advising customers of his selection and its goodness.
“I have oranges and bananas, I have good lemons, broc-oh-lee,” Mr. Okra calls as his truck sputters along at a stately parade pace. “I have cantaloupes, collard greens. I have garlic, eating pears, blueberries.”
Mr. Okra talks to New Orleans all day, and all day the city talks right back. Guys on bicycles point and shout his name, excited by the local celebrity sighting. Motorists pull up alongside him and sing his lines before he can.
“I got oranges and bananas,” shouts a carload of smiling girls slowly passing his truck along Esplanade Avenue.
To say Mr. Okra is just a vegetable peddler is to suggest a second-line parade is just a way to ease on down the road, or that an oyster poor boy is just a way to stave off hunger. Some of his most doting fans consider him a mobile totem of New Orleans culture. For instance, Tremé resident and regular customer Jamie Labat says visits from Mr. Okra have been a part of life ever since he was a young boy.
“This truck here,” Labat says, taping its wooden vegetable racks, “it’s like sacred ground. It’s New Orleans, you know. Where else are people this free?”
Many people who have never bought so much as a plum from Mr. Okra have heard about him lately. Roots rock superstar Dave Matthews included a sample of his street cries on his latest album, and Mr. Okra has appeared in videos for local bands such as Morning 40 Federation. Last spring, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival invited him to bring his truck inside festival grounds, where he hollered about fruit and posed for countless photos. This year also saw the debut of Mr. Okra, a documentary short that won the Audience Choice award at the NYC Food Film Festival in June.
“He’s so iconic and such a part of the fabric of my community,” says T.G. Herrington, the New Orleans native who directed the film. “After the first screening in New York, people walked up to us and said, ‘This makes me want to move to New Orleans, I want to know people like Okra.’ I think people get that this is part of a way of life that’s disappearing. It goes beyond commerce, it’s engaging with the past, if you will.”
For Mr. Okra, the role of roving peddler is a family tradition that began in the 1930s when his father, the late Nathan Robinson, took up the trade.
“My daddy was the first Mr. Okra man,” says Mr. Okra, now 66. “He started selling fruit from a wheelbarrow, then from a horse and buggy, then from a truck. I always rode around with him when I could and when I got big I went off on my own.”
Mr. Okra took up other vocations. He worked at a service station and shipped off as a crewman on a freighter for a year. Back home again, he ran his own tire shop for a while, servicing 18-wheelers. He has been married and divorced, and his grown children have made him a grandfather several times over. Today, he’s engaged and plans to remarry next year.
He began street peddling full time about 30 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. Unless he’s sick or his badly ailing truck suffers one of its frequent breakdowns, Mr. Okra and a helper hit the streets seven days a week.
The producers of Mr. Okra made him a part-owner of their film, and have pledged 10 percent of the film’s profits to help rebuild his Arts Street home, still badly damaged from the Hurricane Katrina levee failures and a run-in with a crooked contractor. But otherwise, Mr. Okra struggles with the question of turning all the recent attention he’s attracted into a more comfortable living.
“I’m a celebrity, but I’m a broke celebrity,” he says.
New Orleans once rang with the calls and cries of itinerant hawkers and bootstrap entrepreneurs like Mr. Okra. The landmark 1945 collection of Louisiana folktales “Gumbo Ya-Ya” describes the great multitude of vendors working the city streets, like the ice man, the coffee man, the charcoal man and many others who brought their goods or services directly to customers’ doors. Some announced their approach with a few loud notes from a trumpet, which typically brought housewives out with their purses, plus gaggles of excited children.
Mr. Okra has a megaphone rather than a trumpet, but the effect is the same. People wait for him on stoops and street corners, and some snap photos of their children buying melons from his tailgate. Hard-looking young men leaning on car bumpers flag him down for bananas. Night shift nurses in uniform stop him for groceries. Elderly shut-ins shuffle to their window screens and converse with Mr. Okra as his helper fills their orders. Mr. Okra often idles his wheezing truck before the doors or below the balconies of regular customers, calling to them specifically.
“I got that okra you wanted,” he tells one lady.
“Well, I ain’t got the money until the weekend, I’ll get them then,” she says.
“Might not have them on the weekend, better get them now and pay me later,” Mr. Okra offers.
“No, no,” she says, waving him away. “Credit makes enemies. Let’s me and you stay friends.”
“She’s right you know,” Mr. Okra tells his passengers as he drives off. But he also says he’s rarely been burned by his customers. On the contrary, he enjoys a close and supportive relationship with many of the people on his route.
One such customer is Bob Shaffer, the Bywater folk artist known as Dr. Bob. He painted Okra’s truck and has rendered other assistance, like rebuilding the truck’s vegetable racks once New Orleans potholes shook them to pieces.
“This guy’s out there working everyday. I’ve helped him out and on the flip side when I was sick he would come by my house and check on me,” says Dr. Bob. “I have a lot of respect for hard-working people doing what they can to keep a smile on this town’s face.”
Mr. Okra’s route covers a huge and diverse swath of the city, from the Bywater, through the 8th Ward near his own home, around the Tremé, along Esplanade Ridge and deep into Mid-City.
“You got a different class of people all over my route. Some areas, the people are so nice. Others, you wish you didn’t go down there,” he says, looking through his windshield at collapsed houses, overgrown lots and deeply cratered city streets.
“I remember when children would see you coming, they’d call for their parents, saying ‘Mama, Mama, here comes the vegetable man!’ Now, you pass by in some of these areas they got here, you ask the kids if their parents want something and they look at you like you’re crazy.”
But, out of loyalty to some of his oldest customers, he still includes some areas that are no longer profitable.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you come down my block no more,’ then you tell them and it hurts their feelings,” he says.
The intangibles wrapped up in being a cultural icon aren’t always easy to manage. But on he rumbles, hollering about his produce. Approaching a block on N. Derbigny Street, two young men and a girl lean over a porch railing and sing his own street jingles to him.
“I got oranges, bananas,” they bellow in fake croaking voices.
“You ain’t got nothing,” Mr. Okra sings right back, barely suppressing a giggle. “I got it all.”